From The most important and misappreciated American films since the beginning of the cinema, a coffee-table-size book of 150 pages published by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium in 1977. Two or three years earlier, when I was living and working in London, the great Jacques Ledoux (1921-1988) — whom I’d met back in 1968 when I first traveled to Brussels, to look at several of Murnau’s earliest films at his Cinematheque –- stopped by my office at Monthly Film Bulletin to ask me to participate in his eccentric but fascinating survey, which polled 203 participants around the world and then tabulated and cross-referenced the results in a number of ways.

By “misappreciated,” I’m sure that what was meant was “underrated”. I find that I still agree to a surprising degree with many of my judgments in the mid-70s –- including even my belief that Hollywood at the time was going through one of its more meager periods (even though Pauline Kael and many of her disciples seemed to think, and some of them apparently still think, that this was the richest period Hollywood has ever had in its entire history).

I made a point of mentioning Michael Snow at the end of my comments because I knew in advance that some European respondents would list him despite the fact that he is Canadian, not “American” (except in the “North American” sense).Read more »

A Depth in the Family [A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE]

From the Chicago Reader (September 30, 2005). The last illustration, incidentally, is from the graphic novel that this film is based on.,,,See below for screenwriter Josh Olson’s recent response to this review. — J.R.

A History of Violence

**** (Masterpiece)

Directed by David Cronenberg

Written by Josh Olson

With Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, Ashton Holmes, William Hurt, and Heidi Hayes

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a happy family man running a diner in idyllic small-town Indiana, with a lawyer wife (Maria Bello), a teenage son (Ashton Holmes), and a little girl (Heidi Hayes). One night he responds so deftly and definitively to the violent threats of two killers that he becomes a local hero. A Philadelphia mobster named Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) hears of the story and soon arrives in town claiming that Tom has another name and background — that he was once a gangster himself who mutilated one of Fogarty’s eyes with barbed wire.

Is A History of Violence a popular genre movie, soliciting visceral, unthinking responses to its violence while evoking westerns and noirs? Or is it an art film, reflecting on the meaning, implications, and effects of its violence, and getting us to do the same?… Read more »

Home movie of homelessness (Review of REMINISCENCES OF A JOURNEY TO LITHUANIA)

One of my first published reviews, which appeared in the November 2, 1972 issue of The Village Voice, this was commissioned by Andrew Sarris, bless him. I was always grateful for this opportunity to write about a film that I love, and that I continue to cherish. — J.R.

Jonas Mekas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania, a film dedicated “to all the displaced people in the world,” has itself become the object of some displacement. Screened jointly with Adolfas Mekas and Pola Chapelle’s Going Home at the New York Film Festival, defined in the program as a non-narrative film and by its author as a home movie, it has become a casual victim of “convenient” programing and somewhat deceptive labels. Whatever “non-narrative” and “home movie” mean — and I think the latter describes Going Home pretty accurately — they are less than helpful in describing the achievement of what must be called Jonas Mekas’s testament. If they must be understood, let it be understood that Reminiscences is a home movie about homelessness, a non-narrative film with one of the most beautifully constructed and articulated narrative lines in autobiographical cinema.

Going Home, a rambling collection of travel photos and family poses, resembles the jazzy surfaces of Hallelujah the Hills, joke titles and all, and registers not unlike a boastful list of possessions (the secret metaphysic behind every family album): this is my garden, my Moscow, my family, my Lithuania.… Read more »

Reality and History as the Apotheosis of Southern Sleaze: Phil Karlson’s THE PHENIX CITY STORY

From The Oxford-American, issue #42, Winter 2002. — J.R.

Karlson pushes and punches, but he’s good at it. He can dredge up emotion; he can make the battle of virtuous force against organized evil seem primordial.  He has a tawdry streak (there’s an exploitation sequence with a nude prostitute being whipped), and he’s careless (a scene involving a jewelry salesman is  a  decrepit mess), but in the onrush of the story the viewer is overwhelmed….One would be tempted to echo Thelma Ritter in All About Eve –”Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end” — but some  of the suffering has a basis in fact.
– Pauline Kael on  Walking Tall (1974)

1. What Qualifies as Real
As an Alabama expatriate who fled north the first chance I could get, I didn’t keep my southern accent for long; it fell away, in a matter of months, like dead skin. The fact was — and is — that Alabama accents sound stupid to Yankees; and since I was both a teenager and trying hard to become a Yankee, they eventually began to sound stupid to me. Especially during the Civil Rights Movement, already in full swing by then, having a southern accent, if you were white, made you sound like a racist to some people,  regardless of what you said or did.… Read more »

Diaries, Notes & Sketches — Volume 1, Reels 1-6: Lost Lost Lost

From Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1977, Vol. 44, No. 516. I’m delighted to report that both this film and Mekas’s earlier diary film Walden (1969) have been released together on a Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber. –- J.R.

Diaries, Notes & Sketches — Volume 1, Reels 1-6: Lost Lost Lost

U.S.A. ,1975
Director: Jonas Mekas

Dist–Artificial Eye. p.c /p/sc/ph–Jonas Mekas. addit. ph–Charles Levine, David Brooks, Peter Beard, Ken Jacobs. Part in colour. ed–Jonas Mekas. m/songs–including piano music by Chopin, “Abschied” by Schubert, traditional Lithuanian music, “Kiss of Fire” by Lester Allen, Robert Hill, excerpts from Wagner’s “Parsifal”,“How Deep Is the Ocean” by Irving Berlin, music by Lucia Dlugoszewski. sd/narrator–Jonas Mekas. with–(Reels 1-6) Jonas Mekas, Adolfas Mekas; (Reel 2) Prof. Pakstas, Juozas Tysliava, Stepas Kairys, Zadeikis, George Maciunas and family, Faustas Kirsa, Aleksandra Kasuba, Vytautas Kasuba, Vladas Jakubenas, Jeronimas Kacinskas; (Reel 3) Gideon Bachmann, Dorothy Brown, Sidney Grief, Lily Bennett, Storm De Hirsch, Louis Brigante, George Fenin and son, Arlene Croce, Edouard de Laurot, Ben Carruthers, Leo Adams, Sheldon Rochlin, Frances Starr, Robert Frank, Peter Bogdanovich, LeRoi Jones, Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, Bremser, Ged Berliner, Dick Bellamy; (Reel 4) Gretchen Weinberg, Herman Weinberg, Dick Preston, Dwight Macdonald, Shirley Clarke, Julian Beck, Judith Malina, Robert Hughes, Nat Hentoff, Norman Mailer, David Stone, Jules Feiffer, Naomi Levine, David Reynolds, Paul Goodman; (Reet 5) Peggy Stefans, Herman Weinberg, Gretchen Weinberg, Marty Greenbaum, Peter Beard, Ed Emshwiller, David Stone, Taylor Mead, Sheila Finn, P.… Read more »


From Stop Smiling No. 35 (its gambling issue), June 2008.  — J.R.

“Trusting to luck means listening to voices,” Jean-Luc Godard reportedly said at some point in the mid-1960s. This has always struck me as being one of his more obscure aphorisms, and one that even seems to border on the mystical. Yet the minute one starts to apply it to Robert Altman’s California Split, released in 1974 —- a free-form comedy about the friendship that develops and then plays itself out between two compulsive gamblers, Charlie (Elliott Gould) and Bill (George Segal), and the first movie ever to use an eight-track mixer — it starts to make some weird kind of sense.


What’s an eight-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks developed by Jim Webb, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries. Plant enough microphones around the set or on the location —- in this case, eight —- and one could always adjust the volume later, when the separate channels were being mixed together and one could decide which channels should predominate, and in which proportion.… Read more »

The Curiosity of SKIDOO

From the online Moving Image Source (July 20, 2011),  — J.R

Everybody has their own Laurel and Hardy. A miniature Laurel and Hardy, one on each shoulder. Your little Oliver Hardy bawls you out -– he says, “Well, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into.” And your little Stan Laurel gets all weepy -– “Oh, Ollie, I couldn’t help it, I’m sorry, I did the best I could….”

– Groucho Marx on LSD


Living in a garbage can be a lot of fun….
Life is always equal in the can….

– the first and last lines of Skidoo’s Garbage Can Ballet

Seeing works of art, including films, in terms of success or failure, smash or flop, can be a form of tyranny, a limiting of options — not to mention a recipe for boredom, especially if one has no monetary stake in the outcome, which is true in most cases. So to say that Otto Preminger’s Skidoo –- which has finally become available on a letterboxed DVD, released by Olive Films -– failed at the boxoffice in 1968 and fails today, as it failed 43 years ago, as a lighthearted comedy, while certainly accurate, may not be the most helpful thing to say about it.… Read more »

Historical Meditations in Two Films by John Gianvito

This article appeared in the Winter 2008-2009 issue of Film Quarterly. I’m delighted that both of the films I write about here are available on DVD, although regrettably the current prices, at least on Amazon, are quite hefty. My suggestion is to keep looking for better deals elsewhere; The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein remains for me one of the key American independent American features of the past decade or so, and it’s hard for me to think of another that’s more personally important to me. — J.R.


by Jonathan Rosenbaum

It’s been gratifying to see the almost instant acclaim accorded to John Gianvito’s beautiful, fifty-eight-minute Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), especially after the relative neglect of his only previous feature-length film, the 168-minute The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001).

The more recent film — a meditative, lyrical, and haunting documentary about grave sites that won the grand prix at the Entervues Film Festival in Belfort in 2007 and both a Human Rights Award and a special mention at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Film in 2008 — also received an award at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in Ohio and was named the year’s best experimental film by the National Society of Film Critics.… Read more »

The Lure of Crime: Feuillade’s FANTOMAS Films

Commissioned and published by Fandor in September 2010. — J.R.

Teaching silent film in the mid-1980s at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I was astonished to discover I was the first teacher there who had ever shown a film by Louis Feuillade. Sadly, there was a good reason: at that time, only one Feuillade film was in distribution in the U.S. — Juve contre Fantômas (Juve vs. Fantômas) — and few if any of my teaching colleagues had ever seen it.

My own introduction to Feuillade, one of the most memorable filmgoing experiences in my life, was attending, on April 3, 1969, a 35-millimeter projection of all seven hours of his 1918 crime serial, Tih Minh, at the Museum of Modern Art -– along with Susan Sontag, Annette Michelson, and other enrapt friends and acquaintances. Part of the shock of that experience was discovering that even though Feuillade was a contemporary of D.W. Griffith — born two years earlier, in 1873 — he seemed to belong to a different century. While Griffith reeks of Victorian morality and nostalgia for the mid-19th century, Feuillade looks forward to the global paranoia, conspiratorial intrigues, and technological fantasies of the 20th century and beyond.

Read more »

Love in the Time of Terror

This appeared in the Chicago Reader‘s July 8, 2005 issue. — J.R.


**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Sally Potter

With Simon Abkarian, Joan Allen, Shirley Henderson, Sam Neill, Wil Johnson, Gary Lewis, Raymond Waring, and Stephanie Leonidas

Yes. A film that irrefutably deserves its title. A film of affirmation. Which is not the same as a story with a happy ending…. If the places in this story become characters, what is the scene? The area of world politics today, nothing less, is the scene — and, above it, the sky to which everyone, at one moment or another, prays. — John Berger

Apparently sales of poetry go up in times of war. — Sally Potter

Many people feel a sense of helplessness about the ongoing war in the Middle East, feelings they’re often unable to articulate, much less address. Sally Potter’s Yes shows one way these feelings can be processed, and in doing so overturns some of the usual assumptions about what movies can and should do. It won’t please everyone, and the sensitive topics it touches on may make some viewers mad enough to spit.

Yes is a post-9/11 love story, set chiefly in London, about a passionate adulterous affair between an Irish-American scientist (Joan Allen), who’s unhappily married to an English politician, and a somewhat younger Lebanese cook (Simon Abkarian), who’s unmarried and used to work as a surgeon in Beirut.… Read more »

Program Notes for the North American Theatrical Premiere of THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR & THE INDIAN TOMB

On January 3, 1978, during what must have been my first visit back to London after moving from there to San Diego in early 1977, I attended a private screening at the British Film Institute of glorious new prints of Fritz Lang’s Indian films. Over four years later, when I was invited to program “Buried Treasures” at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, I was delighted to be able to book these prints and thus hold what I believe was the North American premiere of Fritz Lang’s penultimate films in their correct versions, uncut and subtitled in English rather than dubbed. Luckily, Film Forum’s Karen Cooper attended this screening, and two years later, when she booked these prints for a theatrical run, she commissioned me to write program notes, reprinted below. — J.R.


(1958, 1959/101, 97 min.) Directed by Fritz Lang. Exec. Producer: Arthur Brauner. Screenplay by Lang & Werner Jorg Luddecke from a novel by Thea von Harbou & a scenario by Lang & von Harbou. Photographed by Richard Angst. Art direction by Helmut Nentwig, Willy Schatz. With: Debra Paget (Seetha), Paul Hubschmid (Harald Berger), Walter Reyer (Chandra), Claus Holm (Dr. Rhode), Sabine Bethmann (Irene Rhode), René Deltman (Ramigani).… Read more »

Out of the Darkness [Endfield's INFLATION & THE ARGYLE SECRETS]

From the Chicago Reader, January 15, 1993. — J.R.


*** (A must-see)

Directed by Cyril Endfield

Written by Endfield, Gene Piller, Michael Simmons, E. Maurice Adler, and Julius Harmon

With Edward Arnold, Horace McNally, Esther Williams, and Vicky Lane.


*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by Cyril Endfield

With William Gargan, Marjorie Lord, Ralph Byrd, Jack Reitzen, John Banner, Barbara Billingsley, Alex Fraser, George Anderson, Mary Tarcai, and Kenneth Greenwald.

It’s a virtual truism that rewriting history entails — and to some extent derives from — rethinking the present moment. Just as the recent change in presidents can be linked to the public’s revised reading of the last 4 (or 8 or 12) years, our highly selective sense of film history is determined not only by which films have survived but also by the present-day concerns that dictate what interests us about the past.

Illustrations of this principle can be found in three separate programs showing this week at the Film Center. The first two are part of an invaluable series, “Romanov Twilight: Early Russian Cinema,” running throughout this month. I haven’t previewed the films for these programs — Yakov Protazanov’s two-part Satan Triumphant (1917) on Saturday at 4:30 and Evgenii Bauer’s Yuri Nagorny (1916) and V.… Read more »

The Problem with Poetry: Leos Carax

From the May-June 1994 Film Comment; also reproduced in my collection Movies as Politics. (For some briefer and more recent comments about Carax’s Merde and Holy Motors, go here.) — J.R.

First come words. No, emotions . . .
— line overheard in party scene of BOY MEETS GIRL

Introducing André Bazin’s Orson Welles: A Critical View in the late 70s, François Truffaut registered his opinion that “all the difficulties that Orson Welles has encountered with the box office . . . stem from the fact that he is a film poet. The Hollywood financiers (and, to be fair, the public throughout the world) acceptbeautiful prose — John Ford, Howard Hawks — or even poetic prose — Hitchcock, Roman Polanski — but have much more difficulty accepting pure poetry, fables, allegories, fairy tales.” [Translated by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1991, 26.]

I’m not at all sure about fables and allegories — think of Campion’s THE PIANO and Kieslowski’s BLUE for two recent examples, neither of which the public seems to have much difficulty in accepting — and the Disney organization churns out fairy tales on a regular basis. But when it comes to poetry, pure and otherwise, I think Truffaut had a point.… Read more »

Potent Pessimism [on Cy Endfield]

From the Chicago Reader (July 10, 1992). For more on Endfield, see Brian Neve’s excellent new biography, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield: Film Noir, the Blacklist, and Zulu, as well as my subsequent Reader article about him and my essay “Pages from the Endfield File,” which grew out of the preceding two pieces and is reprinted in my 1997 collection Movies as Politics. This particular piece has been upgraded in terms of illustrations. — J.R.


The role of a work of art is to plunge people into horror. If the artist has a role, it is to confront people — and himself first of all — with this horror, this feeling that one has when one learns about the death of someone one has loved. — Jacques Rivette in an interview, circa 1967

Cyril Raker Endfield, who will turn 78 this November, is the sort of filmmaker auteurist critics like to call a “subject for further research.” To the best of my knowledge, he has directed 21 features — the first 7 in the United States between 1946 and 1951, the remainder in England, continental Europe, and South Africa between 1953 and 1971 — and worked on the scripts for most of them, as well as on the scripts of two Joe Palooka films (apart from the two he directed), a Bowery Boys picture (Hard Boiled Mahoney, 1947), Douglas Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1948), a prison picture called Crashout (1955), Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1958), and Zulu Dawn (1979), a sort of prequel to Endfield’s only hit, Zulu (1964).… Read more »

Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville

From Sight and Sound (Spring 1975); I’ve mainly followed the editorial changes (mainly trims) used in the version that appears in my collection Essential Cinema….My apologies for the format problems with this piece, only some of which I’ve managed to resolve satisfactorily. — J.R.


 [. . .] Unless it is claimed that a pianist’s hands move haphazardly up and down the keyboard — and no one would be willing to claim this seriously — it must be admitted that there exists a guiding thought, conscious or subconscious, behind the succession of organized sound patterns . . . Of course, it does happen, and not too infrequently, that an instrumentalist’s fingers  ‘recite’ a lesson they have learned; but in  such cases there is no reason to talk about creation.

— André Hodeir, Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence


I can never think and play at the same time. It’s emotionally impossible.

Lennie Tristano, circa 1962


CHARLIE (Elliott Gould): This is the truth. You’re an animal lover, right?/ SUSAN (Gwen Welles): Yeah./CHARLIE: Okay, well: the great blue whale, right? You know about a great blue whale?/ SUSAN (semi-audible): . . . got that wrestling guy, hunh? /CHARLIE: No, it’s a big fish, a big fish, there’s only two or three left in the world.Read more »